Comments on the CRS Reportby George Smith, Ph.D.
"Small-Scale Terrorist Attacks Using Chemical and Biological Agents"
Senior Fellow, GlobalSecurity.Org
IntroductionThe recent Congressional Research Service report, "Small-Scale Terrorist Attacks Using Chemical and Biological Agents" spurs comment.
At this juncture, it is fair to say that much of the literature on chemical and biological terrorism published in the United States is replete with errors, exaggeration, and scaremongering. Some publications, like the May 2004 CRS report, express the intention to provide accurate information and dispassionate analysis. This is an admirable goal. The task is made difficult because such analysis is, by definition, extremely broad and multidisciplinary.
It is not surprising then, but still disappointing, when errors occur.
The mistakes published in "Small Scale Terrorist Attacks Using Chemical and Biological Agents" include the following:
Aum ShinrikyoOn page 9, the CRS report states: "Aum Shinrikyo developed an array of chemical and biological agents to be used against the Japanese civilian populace." It did not develop an array of biological agents. It tried and failed.
Pneumonic PlagueOn Page 28, the report says of pneumonic plague: "... pneumonic plague is contagious through casual person-to-person contact. Therefore each initially infected individual could eventually infect several others. This would allow a terrorist to bypass the technically challenging development of an aerosolizing device."
The CRS report thus casts the impression that pneumonic plague is a disease much more contagious than it actually seems to be. Further material in the report states plague is "easily disseminated," presumably by weapon.
By way of brief but more realistic illustrative discussion, the Centers for Disease Control writes:
"Pneumonic plague is also spread by breathing in [Yersinia pestis] suspended in respiratory droplets from a person (or animal) with pneumonic plague. Becoming infected in this way usually requires direct and close contact with the ill person or animal." (Facts about Pneumonic Plague)Direct and close contact is not the same thing as "casual person-to-person contact" and when it comes to analyses of potentials for chemical and biological terror, the Devil -- or his absence -- is literally in the fine details.
Further perspective may be discerned from the recent trial of plague expert Dr. Thomas Butler. Butler's substantial professional career and life were ruined as a by-product of the U.S. government's obsession with bioterrorism. A colleague of Butler's, Dr. Thomas Lehman, writes on the Federation of American Scientists' website:
"During Dr. Butler's sentencing hearing I learned some other little known facts about 'the plague.' Did you know that our own government worked for twenty years or more on methods to 'weaponize' plague bacteria? What did they find? They couldn't do it! It turns out the plague bacteria are remarkably fragile organisms, and no ready means could be found to disperse and infect people with it easily ..."
Yellow RainOn page 32, the CRS report lists "trichothecene mycotoxins" as a potential toxic agent for terrorist use. In footnote 30 and on page 8 it makes a general reference to "yellow rain" as a Soviet biological weapon. In retrospect, the "yellow rain" allegations are now widely regarded with derision. The CRS report makes no mention of the sizeable literature that disputes the reality of these claims and thus misleads the reader.
Uses of DiphosgeneOn page 60, the CRS report states incorrectly: "Diphosgene has no industrial use."
"Both diphosgene and triphosgene can be used as a substitute for phosgene in all the reactions such as the formation of chloroformates, carbonates, ureas, and isocyanates and for chlorination, carboxylation, and dehydration," writes Suresh B. Damle, of PPG Industries Inc., in Monroeville, PA. ("Safe handling of diphosgene, triphosgene," Chemical & Engineering News, Feb 8, 1993; Vol. 71, No. 6, pp. 4.)
In the on-line catalog of the Changzou Kefeng Chemical Company, diphosgene is sold by 250 kilogram barrel. "Uses: used as intermediate of pharmaceutical, pesticide, dyes and adhesive, etc.," reads the catalog. Diphsogene is "more convenient and safer than monophosgene during production, transportation, storage and use. It is widely used in chloroformylation, carbamidation, carbonic esterification and isonitrile esterificaton in pharmaceutical, pesticide, perfume, dyes and adhesive industry."
Are PPG Industries Inc. or Changzou Kefeng engaged in chemical weapons manufacture? If you relied on the CRS report, you might rush to such a judgment.
Toxins and Nerve AgentsOn page 30, it is stated, "Toxins often have effects similar to chemical nerve agents..."
But the mechanisms of action of ricin, abrin, the shigatoxins, Clostridium perfringens epsilon toxin, and Staphylococcus enterotoxin B -- all listed in Table 3 (page 32) of the CRS report -- are quite different than that of nerve agents.
Internet Recipes for RicinOn page 34, the CRS report states that recipes for extracting ricin "are available on the Internet."
This is a glib assumption that has become a cliché in the war on terror. It does not begin to describe what is a very complicated set of issues, none of which can be easily summed up with a single sentence.
While it is true that there are recipes on the Internet which purport to extract ricin from castor beans, there is little understanding that such so-called recipes are no more significant in the extraction of ricin than would be the physical peeling of the seed coat of the castor bean and collection of the leftover meat.
To understand why they are of little importance requires that one know something of the nature of ricin as well as the origination of the alleged recipes for extracting it. Ricin is a plant protein, a macromolecule, one of many contained within the castor bean. And generally speaking, the isolation and purification of plant proteins is a complex undertaking requiring substantial training in biochemical methods.
Internet recipes for ricin fall into only two categories: (1) very simple unvalidated procedures written either by teenagers or copied from survivalist-kook-fringe books on poisoning, and (2) US patent 3,060,165, apparently granted to a World War II-vintage Army bioweapons operation. (National Security Notes, February 6 - March 4, 2004; "The Poisoner's Handbook," Loompanics Unlimited, 1988; "The Complete Poor Man's James Bond," Atlan Formularies, one of many editions, 2004; "Silent Death," Festering Publications, 2nd. Ed, 1997.)
The CRS report also obliquely states that the "necessary information" to refine ricin is readily available, presumably from the Internet.
The first category of Internet recipe for ricin extraction involves some variation of the addition of water and lye or a solvent like acetone to castor seeds before or after maceration and a subsequent filtration through paper. It is not a purification or extraction in any major sense and certainly does not significantly change the composition of the castor bean mash, also known as oilcake, in castor seed processing. Since proteins are also denatured by strong base, the use of household lye could reasonably be expected to actually reduce the amount of active ricin in such a mixture.
Castor bean oilcake has a use as fertilizer. "Castor [oilcake] is pulp left after castor oil has been squeezed from castor bean seeds. Like other oil seed residues it is very high in nitrogen, rich in other plant nutrients, particularly phosphorus, Castor [oilcake] may be available in the deep South; it makes a fine substitute for animal manure," writes one gardener on the Internet. (Organic Gardener's Composting by Steve Solomon).
In 1857, "H.J. Baker & Bro., Inc., [built] the Baker Castor Oil Company in Jersey City, New Jersey" states a fertilizer company brochure. "... Of great importance [was oilcake] ... This material [was] the first fertilizer product offered ..."
Why would this be of interest?
Straightforwardly: The first set of Internet recipes for ricin extraction produce a residue that is not obviously more refined than castor plant oilcake. But one of the distortions of the war on terror is that such recipes produces something that is routinely referred to as a biological weapon, and even a "weapon of mass destruction."
Infrequently, pets and farm animals have consumed castor seeds or castor oilcake. Information can be found in veterinary literature on such poisonings. A table of lethality per species contrasting consumption of castor bean mash (oilcake) not treated to neutralize ricin with whole castor seeds indicates that oilcake actually may have less active ricin in it than whole castor bean.
Another source to be considered and discounted is the book "Silent Death," which can also be purchased on the Internet. It is a self-published volume, complete with errors in basic biochemistry. Nevertheless, it is cited in discussions of bioterror potentials as a source of information on ricin isolation. In matter of fact, "Silent Death" borrows from US patent 3,060,165 with the author adding his own untested modifications, seemingly for the sake of embellished storytelling. Delivered in a chapter entitled "Ricin -- Kitchen Improvised Devastation," the selection is also quite notable for the fact that it does not live up to its own billing. The described procedure quite obviously cannot be performed with kitchen materials.
The last Internet recipe for ricin is the US Army patent. Without going into scientific detail, it is clear from a straight reading that its intent was to produce a product for use in a biological weapon. It is equally clear that as published it contains fundamental errors in the application of biochemical methods of protein purification. In fact, some of the methodology would actually denature an active protein rather than preserve it, a piece of information that is not at all to be seen in layman literature commenting upon it.
The most generous interpretation of the patent procedure would grant that it could extract a coarse mixture of proteins and other macromolecules from castor seeds, of which ricin would be only one component. There is no indication in the patent itself that the authors of the patent even knew with any degree of scientific precision the toxic activity of their preparation or that it was analytically characterized in a meaningful way. But it is, indeed, on the Internet.
Additionally, there is no reliable information that this author could find indicating that a US biological weapon relying upon this patent worked.
The CRS report also alleges "...Iraq reportedly weaponized ricin."
It is not at all clear that Iraq "weaponized" ricin. UNSCOM reports that Iraq filled a few artillery shells with a mixture of ricin of unknown concentration and toxic activity. Trials of the munitions, according to UNSCOM in Annex C of its report to the UN Security Council, "produced indifferent results...apparently, these projects were not continued." Shakir al-Akidy, an Iraqi scientist who was claimed to have been head of a group attempting weaponization, said that attempts failed. "Ricin is very difficult to isolate ... What we made was very crude, not useful for military applications," the scientist said. (David Cloud, Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2003)
Finally, while there has been much reporting on recent ricin mailings and the trial of a Spokane, Wa., man, Ken Olsen, who was stated to have made ricin from an Internet recipe, this author knows of no information that establishes the actual toxicity or purity of the samples in these cases. Olsen, in fact, admitted to using one of the simplistic Internet recipes for ricin "extraction" but did not know the toxicity of it. His effort amounted to throwing castor seeds in a blender with some liquid, filtering the mixture through paper and retaining the mash. In fact, at no time during the trial of Olsen did the government produce any information as to the actual toxicity or purity of seized samples. (Interview with Olsen defense lawyer, Tina Hunt, April 2004.)
George Smith, Ph.D.
Senior Fellow, GlobalSecurity.Org